I admit it, I’m crazy. But how often do you get a chance to do something you’ve never done before, in the same month that you get your first Social Security payment? After two days of straight driving, through spectacular scenery of Nevada and Wyoming, we arrived at the tiny, all-American hamlet of Burwell, NE, where North Hills Hunt was celebrating their 25th anniversary. Through that time span, Burwell has been the end-of-season, blow it all out ‘til next year stop for a half-dozen Western hunts, that convene annually to hunt for a week, taking turns or pooling packs.
A special treat for a silver anniversary. Photo by Jenny Wheatley/Hunt Photography.
This year 120 foxhunters, representing 14 hunts, travelled to Burwell. And this year, with the silver anniversary of North Hills, joint Masters Luke Mantranga, Dave Keffler, and Monte Antisdel planned some extra features, like an early hunt on Tuesday. When our crew arrived in Burwell on Monday night, after two days of driving, an extra hunt seemed like the thing to do, and I raised my hand and committed. Kindly, Master Keffler and his friend Becca volunteered to give me and my mare Tory a ride to the Grable Farm in Comstock, a 4,000-acre fixture nestled in the Sand Hills, whose gentle contours reminded me of Kansas, with thick, good grass, and probably more trees. I noticed the trees didn’t stand on hilltops, but rather were at the base of the hills, sheltered in ravines and protected pockets on the hillsides. That should have been my first clue about the wind, but sometimes I’m oblivious.
There was a storm coming which had chased us east from Wyoming, with warnings of high winds. I’d never seen digital speed limit signs, but they have those in Wyoming, because weather conditions, including wind, frequently require an adjustment. One of our rigs was confined to 55 mph across most of the state, while my truck and trailer had sailed through at 75 mph. Those winds followed us to Nebraska, plus some snow. Okay, I thought, I’ve ridden in rain, some light east-of-the-Mississippi snow, and now I get to experience a midwest spring storm.
Tuesday morning, I and fellow crew members opened the door of our charming cottage, and saw a light dusting of snow, which I admit was somewhat of a surprise because the night before seemed mild. That wind was starting to pick up. My truck was iced up, so it took a few extra minutes to warm. But the temperature was a relatively mild 30 degrees. I tacked up and, as a precaution, because there didn’t seem to be a lot activity at the fairgrounds where our horses were stabled, called Becca to confirm the meet was still on go. “Absolutely,” she assured me. In the end, ten hardy fools went out to follow the sight hounds of the cobbled-together pack - an independent cowboy/farmer named Dolf had five lovely lurchers and an Irish Wolfhound, and North Hills huntsman David Kruger threw in some foxhounds.
Brit Vegas Gengenbach offers a warming beverage to visiting Master Steven Thomas from Fort Leavenworth. Photo by Jenny Wheatley/Hunt Photography.
We drove half an hour and parked in a small state park beside the broad and shallow Middle Loop River. Snow was falling steadily and the wind was blowing. Later, I learned through the two hours we were out that the temperature, while 26 degrees, had a real feel of 6 degrees with the 25 to 41 mph winds. I buttoned my Barbour coat collar up and mounted. We hunted the famous Sand Hills, rolling, endless acres of sizeable, steep hills which can be a challenge to maneuver, with their deep crevices. Tory liked the grass and sand footing, and quickly learned to maneuver the eroded shallow gullies on the hillsides.
To watch the pack, we kept mainly to the hilltops, seeing the sight hounds spread out in the coverts. Gamely galloping up to the crest, I urged Tory to stay straight and upright against the blast of the wind from our left. I’d never had to use leg aids because of the wind before! There were several short runs, but nothing sustained. The coyotes this day had better sense than to go out in this weather. However, I’m glad I went - it was a wild, exhilarating time outdoors. Not much finding, but a lot of hunting. We returned to the trailers and gratefully drove a short distance to Becca’s family’s farmhouse, where her grandmother fixed us all a hot, homemade lunch.
The next morning, the weather was totally different. No wind and 25 degrees warmer. We met at the Burwell fixture, just a ten minute drive out of the village. North Hills' fieldmaster had prepared a delicious stirrup cup. I was still cold from yesterday, and finally decided on wearing my long riding raincoat, which, sans coat, kept me very comfortable.
Hunting a combined pack at Burwell. Left to right, Maraina Robrahn, Red Rock Master and huntsman Angela Murray, North Hills huntsman David Kruger, Breanna Orsborn, Brit Vegas Gengenbach, and Fort Leavenworth Master and huntsman Steven Thomas following. Photo by Sophia Peranteau.
This day might have been my favorite hunt so far. The pack was a joint effort of North Hills and Red Rock from Nevada, and scent on this thick greening turf was good. Shortly after they were cast, the pack took off. I could see the staff and huntsmen scrambling to deploy and follow.
The field at first was able to keep them in sight, galloping up, over and down hills, and following through an equal mixture of wire gates and good coops. After about 45 minutes, the cry faded, and we stood on the hill tops listening and looking. Finally, resorting to the radio, our fieldmaster announced that the pack had run to the edge of (or out of) this big country, but the whips now had gathered up most of the pack, and they were now on their way back. Flask break.
At one point, as we hunted back, I looked up and saw the whole pack spread out across the hillside like a checkerboard, evenly covering the ground. No more big runs that day, but still lots of good hound work to watch.
Heading out for the Hark Forward Performance Trial at Arapahoe. Tanya Nelson photo.
Our caravan next set out for Denver, where the Arapahoe Hunt hosted the second foxhound performance trial of our trip. My traveling companions and I (and our horses) were guests of Master Mary Ewing, and we were entertained that evening in the home of field master Kevin Schmeit and his wife Becky. The following day was a rest day, and I caught up on office emails as well as setting up the performance trial computer program. Four hunts entered - Juan Tomas Hounds (NM), Grand Canyon Hounds (AZ), Tejon Hounds (CA) and Bijou Springs Hunt (CO). The site of both days' meets was the Arapahoe clubhouse and kennels, outside of Aurora.
The first day was warm and relatively still. Arapahoe huntsman Steve Currey, originally from Derbyshire and with a successful and substantial history as a professional staff at several hunts east of the Mississippi, admitted to being nervous at hunting a performance trial pack, but soon clearly relaxed and quietly began enjoying himself. After all, he’s hunting the best dogs from some of the best packs west of the Mississippi. In the season he’s been hunting the Arapahoe pack, filling the enormous shoes of now retired huntsman and Master Marvin Beeman, Steve has quickly adapted to the different techniques needed to successfully hunt in these dry conditions.
Master and former huntsman Dr. Marvin Beeman evaluates performance trial hounds. Tanya Nelson photo.
Today, with little wind, he ranged wide in his draws. A number of car followers saw as many as five coyotes, but the field didn’t view. Hounds ran in fairly short bursts. We jumped a lot of inviting coops and stacked logs, moving from draw to draw. Two years ago cattle were added to the territory, and this hunt has added almost 200 jumps since, to keep mobility over the new fencing.
In the third hour, a whip viewed and I watched the brown coyote scamper down the hill toward a stream, lined with fallen logs. There the hounds lost. No one viewed him across the creek. Just then a white, flatbed pickup roared up the road on the hillside across the creek and Amanda Wilson, wife of Grand Canyon huntsman Peter Wilson, jumped out, running and pointing her hunt cap down the road and up the hill. Staff and field galloped over, the hounds found, and we raced on another mile. There was a split, and huntsman Currey stopped the hounds the field was following, to regroup. However, that trail, in the warming temperatures, never revived. This day we ranged 21 miles. A decent day, with a lot of hunting and trailing scores, and a few full cry scores.
This first day was nostalgic and even emotional for me. I rode Dixie, the same PMU mare I rode here during Arapahoe's Centennial Performance Trial. That day we went 33 miles in the high desert, 6,500 feet above sea level. Later, she’d been named a Centennial Fieldhunter for the Southern District. Today, she’s 15, very fit, and I think she remembered this wide open place. She was lovely all day, jumping and galloping on.
The next day, a brisk steady wind blew, I slathered up on lotion, and prepared to grin and bear it. Surely scenting conditions were going to be difficult to impossible. Wrong. Steve started off drawing in the open, working to a lovely high desert valley, with a flowing shallow stream with good sandy footing. There were big trees spreading out 100 feet on either side of the creek. Lots of grass, and no cactus. There were ducks, cranes, killdeers and meadowlarks. And there were lots of coyotes. The field today viewed every one spotted by the whippers-in, who would holler, point his or her cap, and the race would be on.
Our field master was the affable Mike Jenner, who welcomed me at the front of first flight, and during lulls in the action, explained some finer points. Of course, watch out for the fairly frequent prairie dog holes. But there were also piles of barbed wire on the ground, and with the addition of cattle, new, knee-high hot wire strung in hard-to-see spots. I told him I’d stay behind him, even though he explained that the field often ranged on either side of him in the open high desert. Field masters and huntsmen are excellent leaders over unknown creeks and strange, deep grassy fields while galloping.
We had three long runs, and the field viewed a number of hunted coyotes for long periods, including a hunted pair. I could stand in my stirrups and point with my whip, letting Tory take care of avoiding the holes. Intermittently there would be jumps, and I tried to pull her up, and be sure she had her breath and was collected. This mare loves to hunt, and she impatiently let me rate her, then proceeded to jump lightly and smoothly, and gallop on.
At the end of the third run, probably the longest of the day, our fieldmaster’s horse was tiring, and that good gray Thoroughbred mare clipped the very top edge of a steep coop, splintering the top part of the first board into a 2’ fragment which stuck straight up in the middle of the coop. There was still plenty of room on either side to jump, and I told Tory to go left, at the angle Mike had taken. We flew over, and she caught up quickly. The hounds checked shortly afterwards, perhaps even putting that coyote to ground, but he could not be located. We hunted home quietly, covering 18 miles this day.
Jean Derrick served as Honorary Secretary of the Hark Forward Hound Performance Trials. To read about the first part of her 10,000-mile trip, click here, and for the second installment, click here.